Scream: Subverted Subversion

Justin Bibler

Wes Craven’s 1996 film Scream is something of an anomaly, effectively satirizing the typical American slasher film, but at the same time still completely belonging to the genre. The same cannot be said of the flood of “________ Movie”s that followed its release, which were completely comedy centered and wanted little to do with horror, or rom-coms, or whatever genre they were meant to parody. But just how does Craven allow this film to achieve full, very comedic self-awareness without sacrificing its membership of the slasher genre?

Both the comedy of the film and its thrills often come from the same general mechanism: a subversion of one’s subverted expectations. That is, exactly what one would expect – and exactly what the characters say will happen – is often what occurs. Screenwriter Kevin Williamson created characters who are somehow all horror movie buffs, as they constantly make allusions to other horror movies and their tropes, often saying things such as, “If this were a horror movie…”. Additionally, one character (Randy Meeks) works at a video rental store and is even more aware of horror movie tropes than the others. In fact, at one point, he outlines the three major rules that dictate who survives a horror movie:

and later, after surviving being shot, hilariously says that he has never been so glad to be a virgin:

Another fantastic scene with Randy, both suspenseful and comedic, occurs while he is watching a movie alone. Ghostface, the killer, is in the house but Randy does not know this:

Randy, much like the audience would be saying to him, is encouraging Jamie Lee Curtis to look behind her for the killer, all the while unwittingly being put in the exact same situation. Sidney and Kenny seeing this on the CCTV that Kenny installed and repeating Randy’s encouragements further highlights the irony. Thus, Williamson would lead one to believe that a character that is so incredibly aware of movie tropes would know what to do, since he is in a horror movie himself. Instead, he acts exactly as one would expect him to if he were a typical slasher film character, which of course he is.

One final scene with Randy exemplifies how Williamson can tell the audience exactly what will happen, and yet completely surprise them when it is true:

Prior to this scene, the audience has been given a few pieces of conflicting information. Billy arrives at Sidney’s house seconds after Ghostface leaves, accidentally dropping a cell phone, leading us – as well as Sidney, and the police – to believe Billy is the killer. However, while Billy is being held, Sidney receives another phone call from Ghostface. How could Billy have made that call from jail? Additionally, the police discover that the cell phone used to make the calls to Sidney belongs to Sidney’s father. Surely, Billy isn’t responsible, and we are beginning to think that Mr. Prescott could be the culprit. However, there isn’t enough evidence to be sure. This ambiguity and conflicting information keeps the audience invested in the plot and allows us to take Randy’s theory about Mr. Prescott being a red herring semi-seriously, but not seriously enough to be certain of its truth. However, about half an hour later, we find out that Randy was completely correct.

Scream is a horror film for more reasons than just clever writing. It also relies on tropes of horror filmmaking techniques, such as tight framing and cliché non-diegetic sound, like the crescendo from the string section. Lets take a look at a clip the opening sequence. A stranger has called Casey Becker and she’s been flirtatious up to this point:

Up to this point, the voice on the other end of the line could be any number of miles away and we have no reason to believe there is someone watching Casey until he tells her he wants to know the name of the girl he’s looking at. We hear a dog barking faintly just after he asks her name, and are reminded of the world immediately outside Casey’s huge French doors, where we now know a man might be lurking. Cuts show the audience that the size of the popcorn bag grows alongside our suspense, and Casey begins to understand that she is in serious danger when the tone of the man’s voice changes from casual to threatening. The tracking shots that had been slowly following Casey around her home now increase in speed as she runs frantically down the hallway, locking doors. The audience becomes hyper-aware of the number of windows in her home as she peers out several of them, building our suspense as we keep asking ourselves – as we will for the rest of the movie – just where exactly is Ghostface? This suspense is further capitalized by the fact that while Casey is looking out the windows, tight framing and the angle of the shot prevent us from seeing what she does. Finally, after a quick crescendo from the soundtrack, all is quiet until a doorbell makes Casey and the audience jump.

Later, there is another phone call scene in which Sidney has her first encounter with Ghostface:

This scene contains more of the string crescendo trope, which is typically used in horror films as a signal to the audience: “Hey, listen. Something is about to happen!” The strings begin quietly at first, slowly building and then suddenly cutting out when something terrifying jumps out of nowhere to scare the (usually) future victim as well as the audience. However, throughout the film, Craven inserts these crescendos but has no jump scare occur after the climax. In a “boy-who-cried-wolf” fashion, the audience grows to not trust these cues, which makes the instances where Ghostface actually does suddenly appear all the more terrifying.

Overall, Craven and Williamson utilize the tropes of the slasher and horror genres in incredibly creative ways that parodies the genres, but at the same time use them exactly as intended to create their desired effect, a feat that few films since its release have been able to achieve.

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